Eeyore Meets American Declinism
Image Credit: Flickr - Creative Commons License (JD Hancock)

Eeyore Meets American Declinism


Eeyore is an unworthy metaphor for superpower diplomacy. Of  late, nonetheless, the lovable yet perpetually downcast donkey from E. E. Milne’s classic Winnie the Pooh books and films seems to encapsulate the American national mood. The national-security establishment in particular is in a funk that makes Eeyore look upbeat. If I had a dollar for every time I've heard someone weeping and gnashing teeth over the budgetary "sequester," I could retire a rich man. The topic came up repeatedly at our Fletcher School roundtable last week, and that gathering was far from atypical on this count. Is some pain in the offing? Sure. But as Deputy Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter pointed out recently, sequestration amounts to "temporary budget turbulence imposed by the Congress." Bravo! The cuts imperil neither the strategic pivot to Asia nor other pressing priorities.

Atttitudes have consequences. It’s been said decline is a choice. So is declinism, the deep-seated pessimism that holds that one's day in the sun is slipping irresistibly into nightfall. Indeed, I would say the latter is the deadlier sin by far. Decline implies misallocating resources. It's correctable. Great powers can bounce back. Classical Athens rebuilt its maritime empire scant decades after a crushing defeat at Spartan hands. Great Britain and its Royal Navy reached a nadir in 1781, losing to the French Navy at the Battle of the Virginia Capes, only to smash the same fleet the next year in the West Indies. Britain went on to a triumph over Napoleonic France that ushered in a century of nautical mastery. The U.S. Navy rebounded from the "dead apathy" (Mahan's term) of the post-Civil War years, from the ravages of Depression-era economics, and from the "hollow force" of the post-Vietnam years. Material decline can be put right with grit and determination.

Declinism connotes despair, the sort of spiritual rot that invites real-world repercussions. Thinkers from Clausewitz to Schelling depict national strength as a product of power and resolve. And others have to believe in U.S. power and resolve. Few foreign governments, whether allies, opponents, or bystanders, will take seriously a superpower that's constantly kicking the dirt. Declinism could embolden competitors while prompting allies and friends to look elsewhere for support.

Fortunately, Asians seem cheerier about American staying power than Americans are. Over at Foreign Policy, University of Southern California professor David Kang touts low defense spending figures in Asia as proof that no one fears China. But many Asians do fear China. Try walking down the streets of Manila and asking about Beijing's conduct at Scarborough Shoal, or quiz the man on the streets of Tokyo about the Senkaku Islands. We could just as easily interpret Kang's numbers as a token of confidence in U.S. fortitude and maritime might. Asian governments, that is, see little need to spend more on defense so long as a trustworthy protector remains nearby. If there's a problem, it's that Asians repose excessive confidence in the U.S. military. Discouraging free-riding is a diplomatic chore to which Washington must apply itself. But that, as they say, is a story for another day.

So buck up, all you Eeyores out there.

Brett Champion
June 10, 2013 at 01:34

Decline is a choice, until it isn't. That is, absolute decline might well be a choice, but relative decline is much less of a choice.

The US has a very real decision to make very soon about whether we are going to maintain our large security system around the world. Given the huge increases in spending on Social Security, Medicare, and Obamacare that our government is going to have to start shelling out from around 2018 if there is no reform of those programs, the US will soon not be able to spend much more on national security as a share of GDP than what the Germans or Italians do today. If US defense spending drops to that level, we'll have to choose between having a two-ocean navy and some combination of land and air power that would be able to provide security for our allies in both Europe and Asia. But we won't be able to have both.

Even with reform of those above programs, future spending on national defense is going to be squeezed much harder than it will be this decade. By 2030 I highly doubt that defense spending will be above 2% of GDP. The question then becomes how high will our GDP be at that time. Given the fact that I very much doubt those programs will ever be truly reformed, an annual growth rate between now and 2030 of just under 2% can be expected. If we get a hold of our government spending and really balance the budget, maybe we can get that number back up to 3%, but I seriously doubt we have the political courage in this country to get that done.

Dan Pendleton
May 10, 2013 at 06:30

Old white men of the GOP still unable to wrap their heads around the fact that American voters twice voted for Obama, so what do they do? Obstructionism and more obstructionism to make sure NOTHING GETS DONE!!

May 3, 2013 at 00:06

China's military spending is ridiculously low. It seems that the PRC has made a decision to concentrate more on developing its economy rather than the military. That may help to explain the low military budget of China.

r elegant
May 2, 2013 at 00:17

Author was, perhaps, A.A. Milne, not E.E.

May 1, 2013 at 12:19

It's worse than that I'm afraid.  Kang compares Apples with Oranges.  When quoting other nations' defense figures, he uses defense spending as a percentage of gdp while when he comes to China, he uses absolute defense spending estimates.

With this, he makes a purposefully misleading conclusion that Asian militaries have not increased while Chinese defense spending has sky-rocketed.  When you use the same type of data as a comparison, China spends a pitiful percentage of its gdp on defense in comparison to its neighboursm, decreasing to 2% over the course of a decade and the recent increases are a result of a booming economy.

I'm not even sure if Kang is a China Apologist.  He attempts to downplay the overall defense spending increase of China's neighbours while asserting that China is in a single-nation arms race despite that Chinese defense spending as a % of gdp is less than many of its neighbours.

The opposite is probably true.  He wishes to harp on the threat of China while simultaneously coming to the conclusion that the Chinese military is too weak to be taken seriously by its neighbours.

April 30, 2013 at 13:04

"It's astonishing. They all seem gung ho."

Then why not stay and fight in Afghanistan for another 10 years?  I don't want U.S. to withdraw in 2014 and leave the mess to China and Russia.

A Goulty
April 30, 2013 at 07:38

E E Milne??   A A surely?

Leonard R.
April 29, 2013 at 22:36

I read Kang's article. He seems to be the latest apologist for Beijing. There aren't many left in the U.S. They don't last very long these days. The number of hard-core anti-PRC members of Congress grows every year. There is a growing bi-partisan consensus about China.

I knew the future looked bright when both Harry Reid and John Boehner refused to attend Hu Jintao & Lang Lang's big event in the White House in 2011. They can't agree on anything – yet they agree not to attend a state dinner for the PRC. That's worth noting.

I've seen worse declinism in the US than I see in our time. And I've never seen more impressive US military personnel than the ones I see today. It's astonishing. They all seem gung ho. 

I see more 'declinism' outside the US than inside it. And there is no shortage of it in the PRC. Let's see how it looks this time next year. 

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